While working with youth, how often do you hear one of these sentences?

I won’t do it!
I need to get this now and, if I don’t, my world will end.
It is stupid, you are stupid, I don’t like it.
I don’t have to explain myself to you. My final answer is “no”.

More often than you can count? That means you are definitely a youth worker with experience and you know that sometimes, while approaching youth, you need to first combat their defences and understand what their priorities and needs in life are.

Saying ‘no’ at the beginning of an interaction can mean many things. It can be a way to impose somebody’s status, an act to establish preferable distance, a call for respect or for help. It is also not a behaviour that can be assigned solely to youth. Most of us, when entering into an interaction with someone who we believe has different goals and motivations to us, will show this kind of closed position at the very beginning. Positions are the external statements and behaviours that people demonstrate when they enter into interaction that they perceive that may result in a conflict. They are usually demands, expressed in a closed and defensive way. They often start with ‘I want… (new gadgets, more free time, special treatment, a better life etc.)’ or ‘I don’t want / I will not… (do this, run a marathon, help you, change myself, give up this opportunity etc.)’ Positions are not flexible, they are fixed, combative and often hard to accept by other people.

While working with youth, you may often stumble upon such fixed positions that, especially in a group, contradict each other and are a real barrier to moving forward and developing better relations, competencies or projects. A person who is stuck in his or her position will not see anything around himself or herself; the person will only look forward at the designated goal. And where there are two or more people with contradicting positions, that can definitely bring about conflict. It can be based on a limited resource that two people want, contradicting lifestyles, priorities, unequal access to information, different values or even complicated human relations. All in all, if two youngsters fortify themselves in their positions, you are definitely going to have a hard time trying to get them out of there.

Does it mean you should give up right away? Surely not! The research behind conflict shows that conflict is not only a source of misunderstanding and destruction, but can also lead to change. In order to transform the conflict into opportunity to change you need to help the young people understand what it really is that they need or what is the real reason for them saying ‘no’.

Layers that lie beneath positions are interests and needs. Interests show what a person is really trying to achieve by expressing a given position. They usually answer the question: ‘What do you want that for?

Example 1:

I want new clothes!’ (position)
‘What do you need them for?’
‘To look cool for my friends so they will like me.’ (interest)

Example 2:

I will not help you with this extra work. I want my free time’ (position)
‘Why not? What do you need it (your free time) for?’
‘So I can spend more quality time with my family, I rarely see them.’ (interest)

Needs lie even underneath the interests. They relate to the basic human needs, such as described on Maslow’s pyramid. Every time someone tries to satisfy their interests, they are driven by some more basic needs. In conflict the needs that are present the most are:

  1. Appreciation – do I feel valued?
  2. Affiliation – am I free to make my own choices?
  3. Autonomy – do I feel like I belong?
  4. Status – what is my position compared to others?
  5. Role – am I happy with who I am?

Once faced with closed position statements expressed by young people, your role as a youth worker would be to help them identify their interests and needs. This is both for the benefit of a young person, who is making the demand, and his or her potential adversary. Once both parties understand what they really need to achieve, there is a greater possibility of them  finding out an acceptable solution. Interests are usually broader, easier to understand and, most importantly, more flexible. There is only one way to satisfy a position: give them what they want. But there are many ways to satisfy another person’s interests. You want new clothes to look cool for your friends? Maybe you can do something else that will make you equally cool, like showing them your new game, throwing a party or organising a trip together? You will not perform this extra task because you are missing out on quality time with your family? Maybe we can provide you with a more flexible schedule or you can work from home? The opportunities are endless, it is up to you to discover them!

And, if you are looking for some extra help on how to discover the needs and interests of a party, you can always use the Socratic ‘Onion of Questions’. It is an easy method that, if used correctly, may help you discover what lies beneath somebody’s position statement. The Onion of Questions consists of four questions that should be asked in the given order. Each question relates directly to the answer to the preceding one:

0. An “ I want’ statement

1. What do you want 0 for?

2. If you get 1, what would it give you?

3. If you don’t get 2, what would it take from you?

4. How would 3 affect you?


0. I want to work only 6 hours a day!


1. Why do you want to work only 6 hours a day?

So I can spend more time at home focusing on my hobbies.

2. If you got to spend more time at home focusing on your hobbies, what would it give you?

I would be able to pursue my true passion: drawing.

3. If you couldn’t pursue your passion for drawing, what would it take from you?

I would not be able to fulfil my artistic dreams and would always be stuck with a boring office job.

4. How would giving up your dreams and staying with an office job affect you?

I would be miserable, lose motivation and feel that I have accomplished nothing in my life.

Hopefully this short exercise will help you improve communication between the young people you work with and help them approach the conflicts that they face in a more  constructive matter. And, who knows, maybe you will soon find yourself in the shoes of a youth mediator? If you want to know who that is, don’t hesitate to take a broader look on our webpage  and see how you can use this mediation technique in your daily work with youth.

Paulina Opiełka

This article has been developed within ‘Ready to Mediate? Direction: Youth!’ project, organised within the scope of Erasmus+ programme and co-financed by the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

Author: admin